Today is the opening day of the Kalyani Para music centre and the atmosphere around me is electric. Sweaty cameramen from Malayalam TV jostle for good vantage points while assembled villagers excitedly take their seats. Dedicated to the memory of his father, a famous temple devotional singer, Hari Govindan is setting up this centre so that the Nila’s music continues on and to make sure that the caste system will never be an obstacle to being able to perform.
Despite the public demise of the caste system, it still can be used as a barrier in real life. The right to perform inside temples at festivals has often been reserved for musicians from a high-caste leaving other talented performers without a platform to be heard.
The talented musicians of the Mannan caste were among those not allowed to perform. Unable to find an audience, The Blue Yonder and Hari conspired to bring an audience to them; taking tourists to hear the unique music of the Nila played by these musical masters.
Tourists who heard them came back raving and those who had once banned them from playing began wondering what they were missing out on. Now the original musicians of those first tourist performances are in such popular demand at temples that new players have to be found for the tourists.
The Nila’s musical traditions revolve mainly around percussion. There’s the Mizhaeu: recognised as the oldest theatre drum in the world, the Maddalam: which weighs a whopping 30 kilos, and the Idakka: a bizarre contraption decorated with colourful pompoms and the world’s only drum that can produce every note on the scale.
This morning the air is alive with the pounding vibrations of these instruments as the musicians skilfully beat out their songs. Music here has a history as long as the river itself and these traditions are thankfully in no danger of disappearing anytime soon.